Weißensee – until 2001 an independent Berlin borough but now just a locality within the new super-borough of Pankow – is mostly known for three things: the Weißer See (a picturesque inner-city lake), the Jewish Cemetery (largest in Europe!) and the Delphi cinema (one of the oldest, still open Berlin picture shows, whose fabulously imperfect interior played the role of the 1929 “Moka Efti” café and dance hall in the TV series Babylon Berlin).
The lake has been a cooling magnet for sun- and water-hungry crowds for well over a century. It still is. On warm days you will find said crowds strolling around its shore, clinging onto the precious lawn- or sand-spot along the waterline or bobbing on the latter’s surface like an inflatable armada of pink plastic flamingos (or rubber doughnuts). And sooner or later nearly all of these people will have visited the Milchhäuschen, an elegant mid-1970s café on the western shore of the lake, straight across the water from the lido.
Ask anyone who grew up in Berlin-Weißensee and the Milchhäuschen is as certain to pop up in their long-forgotten tales of the sun-drenched days at the lake as the plastic inflatable flamingos are sure to appear on its surface today. You went to the lake, you went for a swim and after warming yourself up in the sun, you heard your parents say the magic words: “Ick schwitze wie ‘n Braten! Wolln wa Eis essen?“*
For generations of Berliners and Weißenseers this small place at the lake has been a thick thread in that warm worn-out cardigan known as childhood memories.
Interestingly, it is not the first Milchhäuschen that stood on this spot. Until 1965 that name belonged to a lovely half-timbered cottage with a closed wood-and-glass veranda. It was one of the only two buildings erected in the 1880s as part of a never-realised project, an amusement park “Kopenhagener Tivoli”. In 1905 local Weißensee authorities bought it along with the rest of the park and by 1913 had the cottage converted to a place where local families – and children in particular – could enjoy a glass of fresh milk and healthy dairy products.
Drinking good quality milk – fresh, free of pollution and, first of foremost, coming from healthy and TB-free cows (cows can pass tuberculosis onto humans) – was one of the basic measures to boost the health of the youngest city-dwellers (a practice which held in many places – like Poland, for instance – until late in the 1980s). That is why Berlin had more of such “milk bars” (one of the more famous ones stood in Viktoriapark in Kreuzberg).
The milk and dairy products sold at the original Milchhäuschen in Weißensee came not from the cowsheds and meadows of Brandenburg but from… the local hospital. The Säugling- und Kinderkrankenhaus (Infant and Children Hospital) in Hansastraße – the first municipal infant and children hospital in Prussia – kept its own herd to provide nourishing milk to its young patients. The excess of it could be sold at a small profit.
But it was not about money. The terrifying mortality rates among infants and young children in Berlin as well as its surrounding cities and rural communities – until 1920 Weißensee was one of the latter – made the local authorities act before it was too late. Just to give you a sense of how appalling and alarming the situation in Berlin was: in 1900 and 1901 around 30% of all new-borns died within the first year. Most of them in summer, in July and August, and mostly due to infections of the digestive system and diarrhoea.
Why were the numbers so high? And why in summer? The hygiene standards were only one factor. The other one was the plain fact that most mothers had no way of breastfeeding their infants: they spent most of their days working very hard indeed, forced to entrust their babies with relatives, neighbours or older children. Who fed them cow milk. On hot days even fresh milk went sour fast and bacteria spread.
Toddlers and older children were often undernourished, too, and cow milk was a source of many crucial nutritives for them. That explains the idea behind the Milchhäuschen – or Milchwirtschaften as they were sometimes called. They were one way of alleviating the dreadful situation.
The Weißensee Milchhäuschen did exactly that – it helped save and strengthen the children by improving their health. And it definitely made both them and their parents happy by offering fresh yoghurt, cottage cheese and sweet milk-pudding.
Neither the First nor the Second World War brought an end to that tradition. After Germany’s capitulation in May 1945 it did not take long for the place’s fans to return in the hope of finding a bit of normality and that taste of sun-drenched afternoons they remembered from before their world had fallen apart.
Slowly Milchhäuschen regained its old charm and used it to enchant both old and new guests. Until 1965, that is. That year brought its end: rot damaged the half-timbered structure beyond repair and the historic building had to be demolished. It came as a great loss to both the locals and visitors from other boroughs and for a while it was uncertain what would follow.
It took another decade for the new Milchhäuschen to take its place – even though plans for the new building were ready in 1966. From 1976 the bright pavilion with a terrace attracted crowds again – during the day they ate their ice-cream, sipped their milkshakes or iced-coffee and in the evening enjoyed strolling around the lake and the sight of the “Milchhäuschen” neon-sign installed on its roof.
The Wende (Reunification of Germany) in 1990 almost became its end. Luckily, after several years of post-Reunification limbo, when all cards were being dealt out anew, the popular lakeside café eventually found its new owners – before it was too late. Today’s “Master of the Milk Cottage”, Sebastian Wachenbrönner, took over from his father, Oswald, who leased and renovated the venue in 1995.
Before its re-opening in 1996, today’s Milchhäuschen had to undergo extensive restoration works. As a result the interior of the 1976 pavilion had to be made anew while the new owners retained the original outer shell. It was important to keep it – not only for sentimental reasons. Unbeknownst to many, that small pavilion at the Weißer See was designed by Ludmilla Herzenstein. Her name might not tell you much but go to Karl-Marx-Allee 102-104 or 126-128 where a row of poplar trees hides the slightly set back residential buildings known as Laubenganghäuser (Balcony-Access Blocks) – the very first two buildings built in 1952 along the planned Stalinallee – and you might see the common denominator. Clean-cut, practical, simple, accessible. And with a lot of light. “Too elitist”, “too modern”, “too pre-war-like”, said the Soviet-oriented Berlin authorities promptly and introduced a new ruling style along the Stalin Boulevard.
The Laubenganghäuser, however, could stay but that row of poplar trees before them is not a coincidence. And even years later, Ludmilla Herzenstein still believed that her design for new accommodation for the working-class Berliners would have been the right path to follow. Just as it was in 1929 when the Berlin legend of German modernist movement Neues Bauen, Bruno Taut, employed Herzenstein as the building site manager for what is known today as Onkel-Toms-Hütte or Papageinsiedlung in Berlin-Zehlendorf, one of Berlin’s Modernist heritage sites.
So that is why, thanks to an almost forgotten female Berlin architect, Ludmilla Herzenstein, right now somewhere inside the Milchhäuschen at the Weißer See there lives the spirit of Bauhaus. And is probably having a milkshake.
*Ick schwitze wie ‘n Braten! Wolln wa Eis essen? – literally: “I’m sweating like a roast! How about an ice-cream?
Most people know the name Karlshorst either as the place where the Third Reich officially went kaputt (it was here that on the night of 8-9th of May 1945 the Nazis signed their unconditional surrender), as the site of some of the most famous horse-races (the Karlshorst Horse-Racing Course used to be among the leading racing tracks in Europe) or as the bizarre location where within the already divided city, the locals were not allowed to enter certain streets (Russenkolonie was the restricted section of Karlshorst with access for Soviet troops and their families only).
But it is also home to a listed heritage site hidden off the beaten track.
Shortly before the outbreak of the First World War Berlin was bursting at its seams: the city (before the reform incorporating all of its surrounding cities, villages and estates) had nearly two million residents. By 1920, when Greater Berlin appeared on the map, that number grew to 3.8 million.
Just like today, the city faced a dramatic situation: the population kept growing but where should all these people live? The well-heeled citizens had, understandably, less reason to worry – Berlin had enough eight- or ten-room flats in “beste Lage” (best location) to cater to their ever-growing needs. But about those who could not afford to live on Lützowplatz, Kudamm or, even though playing in a much lower league, could not find affordable accommodation in over-populated Wedding or the equally full Wrangelkiez?
Just as today, one of the answers to the rapidly-growing problem was “Build!”. New Siedlungen – residential estates – designed with all the necessary care but without any of the frills began to appear on the fringes of the city (these fringes being the only empty areas suitable for affordable construction).
One of these by now world-famous estates (many of them are UNESCO World Heritage sites) was Waldsiedlung Lichtenberg in Berlin-Karlshorst. Built only twelve minutes’ of a walk away from the station “Karlshorst” on the southern edge of the Wuhlheide (then still a spreading woods), it was never completed – or at least not the way its architect wished it to be.
The man who created the Waldsiedlung on paper, following the principles of Neues Bauen (in this case: functional, simple, comfortable, well lit and well ventilated), was none other than Peter Behrens – the court architect to AEG. Soem of his best known Berlin works are the Turbinenhalle in Berlin-Moabit, Behrensbau tower built as part of the AEG’s car factory in Oberschöneweide (and used as an interior for filming Babylon Berlin series) or Alexanderhaus and Berolinahaus on Alexanderplatz. In Karlshorst, like in neighbouring Oberschönweide where he designed another residential estate for AEG’ workers, his idea was to create 500 affordable new flats within a simple garden-city estate.
Keeping roads within the estate down to the necessary minimum (after all, humans would always choose the shortest route, no matter how baroque the planning), Behrens made sure that the approximately 15 hectares of land along Köpenicker Chaussee were used wisely.
The fact that Germany was at war also played a huge role: there was no money for anything extra – for the ornamental or twee.
Behrens made sure that each house – whether Type V (for one large family) or a smaller Type II or the type Gruppenhaus with four flats for different size families – had everything that made daily life easier. All amenities were provided, including a private bathroom (not a granted by any means – as many of those who lived in Berlin-Kreuzberg’s Altbau flats in the 1980s or even 1990s could tell you).
Each household in Waldsiedlung Lichtenberg would have its own garden between 100 and 300 m², including a shed to be used as a chicken coop, a cowshed or a pigsty (livestock was welcome). The estate, so the plans, was to get its own school and a pharmacy as well as a small sports ground. Even its own railway stop, albeit not one for passenger traffic: the line known as Bullenbahn (officially name: Industriebahn Oberschöneweide), used by the famous factories that like AEG’s production sites used to line the Spree in this part of Berlin, would provide transport for potatoes and coal needed by residents.
The list of the latter, by the way, was to begin with the names of the “war heroes” returning from the (one hoped) victorious battles on the WWI fronts.
The reality, as so often, turned out to be less rosy. Germany lost the war, the national economy found itself in a free dive, the country on the verge of a civil war – ambitious plans of creating modern social housing lost some their significance on the municipal priority list and the Waldsiedlung Lichtenberg, whose construction did not begin until 1919 anyway, ended up half-baked. Out of the planned 500 flats only 117 were ever completed and all the wonderful ideas for own school or pharmacy or sports ground had to be abandoned. It wasn’t until 1937 that the remaining plots were built over – the houses erected on them were like the new Germany after 1933: they were not very similar to the Behrens’ houses and you immediately noticed the disturbing difference.
The next war was not kind to the estate either. Some of these lovingly designed houses and their well-kept gardens vanished among the bombings and fires. But even though only some of them were restored later, a walk or a leisurely bike-ride through the Waldsiedlung today will take you to a place both incredibly charming and astoundingly well-planned. Peter Behrens might not have seen his project realised the way he hoped it would but he definitely did a great job designing it – in 2021, a century later, it still does what it promised on the tin: it is functional, simple, comfortable, well lit and well ventilated. And a dream if you can have it.
To visit Waldsiedlung Lichtenberg (also called Waldsiedlung Wuhlheide), take the S3 to S-Bhf Karlshorst and follow your map from there. If on foot, choose the route along Wandlitzstraße-Liepnitzstraße to enjoy the sometimes pretty stunning architecture of the old “Dahlem of the East” (as Karlshorst was presented to potential investors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries). To get to the estate by bike and faster, ride along Treskowalle and turn right into Hegermeisterweg.
Ella Fitzgerald described her as „the best singer without a voice“. Her mother pronounced her “talent-free”. And during her test performance at the State Film School in Babelsberg her typical Berlinerisch pronunciation and the habit of swallowing word-endings made the examiners cringe. Yet despite all those apparent shortcomings, Hildegard Knef, who never claimed to be a talent or a beauty, became a head-turner, a star and a legend. And not only in Berlin.